Saturday, July 9, 2016

Flight Behavior

In a world that’s quickly heating up and drying up, you can’t go home again—even if you never leave—Clive Thompson

Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior was, according to The Globe and Mail, the first novel that dealt “specifically, determinedly and overtly with climate change. [And] only Kingsolver could pull it off.”

The premise of climate change and its effect on the monarch butterfly migration is told through the eyes of Dellarobia Turnbow, a rural housewife, who yearns for meaning in her life.

The book starts with her scrambling up the forested mountain—slated to be clear cut—behind her eastern Tennessee farmhouse; she is desperate to take flight from her dull and pointless marriage of myopic routine. The first line of Kingsolver’s book reads: “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.” Dellarobia thinks she’s about to throw away her ordinary life by running away with the telephone man. But the rapture she’s about to experience is not from the thrill of truancy; it will come from the intervention of Nature:

A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame. “Jesus,” she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense…The mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave. Like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. “Jesus God,” she said again…Trees turned to fire…The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in shows of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds….It was a lake of fire, something far more fierce and wondrous than either of those elements alone. The impossible…She was on her own here, staring at glowing trees. Fascination curled itself around her fright. This was no forest fire. She was pressed by the quiet elation of escape and knowing better and seeing straight through to the back of herself, in solitude. She couldn’t remember when she’d had such room for being. This was not just another fake thing in her life’s cheap chain of events, leading up to this day of sneaking around in someone’s thrown-away boots. Here that ended. Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, and ethereal wind. It had to mean something.

Although Dellarobia doesn’t realize it yet, that moment proves life-changing for her: no longer “watching a nearly touchable lover behind her eyelids but now seeing flame in patterns that swirled and rippled. A lake of fire.” That day, she participates in the sheep shearing, greatly distracted from a new awakening to the power and wisdom of Nature:

“Watch and learn, Dellarobia thought, feeling an unaccustomed sympathy for the animals, whose dumb helplessness generally aggrieved her. Today they struck her as cannier than the people. If the forest behind them burned, these sheep would come to terms with their fate in no time flat. Flee or cower, they’d make their best call and fill up their bellies with grass to hedge their bets. In every way more realistic about their circumstances. And the border collies too. They would watch, ears up, forepaws planted, patiently bearing with the mess made by undisciplined humans as the world fell down around them.”

Climate change—and all that is associated with it—is altering our planet irreparably, one sure-footed step at a time.

Entomologist Ovid Byron (in response to a reporter’s suggestion that scientists disagree about whether it’s happening and whether humans have a role) talks about the tipping point we’ve ignorantly raced past: “The Arctic is genuinely collapsing. Scientists used to call these things the canary in the mine. What they say now is, the canary is dead. We are at the top of Niagara Falls… in a canoe. There is an image for your viewers. We got here by drifting, but we cannot turn around for a lazy paddle back when you finally stop pissing around. We have arrived at the point of an audible roar. Does it strike you as a good time to debate the existence of the falls?” Ovid (Kinsolver) effectively reiterates what most scientists know: that we have already crossed the tipping point of no return. There is no point in looking back to restore what we are losing; there is only the option of looking forward to adapt—and assist—as best we can.

The irony is that, as audible a roar climate change is for scientists like Ovid, to most of us climate change whispers insidious notes too subtle for us to comprehend or care about.

How does one grasp the gravity of a few degrees difference in temperature? The subtle rise in sea level? The almost imperceptible shift in the migratory pattern of a bird? When we are already so disconnected from Nature and lack the sensibilities—and compassion—to recognize and empathize with her trials and tribulations. Kingsolver suggests—quite accurately, I think—that only scientists can truly appreciate the portent of these subtle changes because it speaks in a language only they can understand.

Flight Behavior resonated with Kristen Poppleton, climate change educator, who shared that Kingsolver was spot on in her “description of the grief and sensation of loss most of us in this business of climate change education, communication and science carry around daily.” This type of grief is so prevalent, in fact, that it has a name: solastalgia. Poppleton empathized with scientist Ovid’s grief as Kingsolver writes, “The one thing most beloved to him was dying.  Not a death in the family…but maybe as serious as that.  He’d chased this life for all his years; it had brought him this distance…Now began the steps of grief.  It would pass through this world…while most people paid no attention.” 

Flight Behavior isn’t so much about climate change and its effects and its continued denial as it is about our perceptions and the actions that rise from them: the motives that drive denial and belief. This is no more apparent than in Kingsolver’s use of biblical references of fire and flood. Both water and flame are potent cleansing agents. They evoke powerful change. They represent givers—and takers—of life. Together, fire and water frame Kingsolver's book with a strong metaphoric beginning and end that embraces creative destruction.

Kathleen Byrne of The Globe and Mail writes: “We begin in flames and end in flood, which suits the biblical (and scientific) parameters of a novel whose setting in Tennessee’s Appalachian mountains is the nexus of a God-fearing religious literalism and an untaught but unbudging righteousness that finds expression in the view that “weather is the Lord’s business.”


To Dellarobia’s question to Cub, her farmer husband, “Why would we believe Johnny Midgeon about something scientific, and not the scientists?” he responds, “Johnny Midgeon gives the weather report.” Kingsolver writes:  “and Dellarobia saw her life pass before her eyes, contained in the small enclosure of this logic. All knowledge measured, first and last, by one’s allegiance to the teacher.”

Ovid shares a terrible insight about science and our perceptions of scientists with Dellarobia: “There are always more questions. Science as a process is never complete. It is not a foot race, with a finish line.... People will always be waiting at a particular finish line: journalists with their cameras, impatient crowds eager to call the race, astounded to see the scientists approach, pass the mark, and keep running. It's a common misunderstanding, [Ovid] said. They conclude there was no race. As long as we won't commit to knowing everything, the presumption is we know nothing.”

The grief that Poppleton feels, voiced by Kingsolver through her character Ovid, is really a grief for us, for the “home” we grew up in and love. The world we made. Near the end of Kingsolver’s book, Dellarobia makes this observation: “Mistakes wreck your life. But they make what you have. It's kind of all one…it's no good to complain about your flock, because it's the put-together of all your past choices.”

We—humanity—may not be around here for much longer. Nature will endure without us. Planet Earth will continue, in some form and Nature and life will endure, evolve, and flourish—in its own way. It will change, perhaps grow more unruly than it is already, but Gaia will continue after she has kicked us off. Ecologists have long recognized the pattern of colonization, exploitation, decadence and succession. How hubristic of humanity not to include itself in that cycle. The cycle of continuing change. We grasp—we clamor—for the world we knew—even as we senselessly impose irreparable change. Shaving forests to the ground so water has no where else to go but down and in a torrent. Creating hot deserts by diverting great rivers somewhere else. Mining vast oil and mineral reserves by scraping the earth until it “bleeds” from unhealable wounds.

Evolution and Nature march on, greater than us, encompassing us—whether we recognize it or not—in ways we can’t imagine (and science is only beginning to discover).  Our vast Universe is so much more than we are capable of even imagining.

Flight Behavior is a multi-layered metaphoric study of “flight” in all its iterations: as movement, flow, change, transition, and transcendence.

Kingsolver ends her book with Dellarobia caught in a mountain flood that may take her life; yet, she remains suspended—transfixed in the moment of the miracle unfolding before her. The monarchs survived the winter and are taking flight:

“The vivid blur of their reflections glowed on the rumpled surface of the water, not clearly defined as individual butterflies but as masses of pooled, streaky color, like the sheen of floating oil, only brighter, like a lava flow. That many.
 She was wary of taking her eyes very far from her footing, but now she did that, lifted her sights straight up to watch them passing overhead. Not just a few, but throngs, an airborne zootic force flying out in formation, as if to war…Her eyes held steady on the fire bursts of wings reflected across the water, a merging of flame and flood. Above the lake of the world, flanked by white mountains, they flew out to a new earth.”

Barbara Kingsolver
And a new earth is what we can be sure of. Whether we’ll be there is debatable—unless we too change.


Interview with Simon Rose

My guest today is Simon Rose, an author of science fiction and fantasy novels for children and young adults, with a recent novel, Future Imperfect that will thrill your socks off. I met Simon some time ago through his awesome show, Fantasy Fiction, when we discussed science fiction, ecology and why we write.

I recently had a chance to invite Simon aboard my intelligent ship, Vinny, orbiting the Earth. An SF veteran, he didn’t blink an eye when I suggested the crystal-beam transporting device to get us aboard (it makes even me a bit squeamish). After settling in the aft lounge with some pockta juice, and a gorgeous view of Earth, we began the interview:

SFgirl: Tell us about your latest novel.

Simon: Future Imperfect is an exciting technology-driven adventure featuring teenage geniuses, corporate espionage, and mysterious messages. In the novel, we’re introduced to Andrew Mitchell, who was one of the leading experts in highly advanced technology in Silicon Valley, until he vanished following a car accident, which also injured his son, Alex. When a mysterious app later appears on Alex’s phone, he and his friend Stephanie embark on a terrifying journey involving secret technology, corporate espionage, kidnapping, and murder in a desperate bid to save the future from the sinister Veronica Castlewood.

The story will appeal to all young readers for whom technology plays such a large role in their lives, whether it’s cell phones, laptops, tablets, gaming, or the online world, but it’s also a very compelling adventure story, with lots of cliffhangers, twists, and turns.

SFgirl: I think it’ll be more than young readers enjoying it, Simon. Where can people buy Future Imperfect?

Simon: Future Imperfect is available at local bookstores, online at Amazon Canada, Amazon USAIndigo/ChaptersBarnes and NobleAmazon UK, and other locations, and autographed copies can also be purchased directly from me via my website.

SFgirl: You called me prolific once, but after seeing your collection, I think you’re the prolificest … Is that a word? Anyway, tell us about your other novels for young adults.

Simon: Future Imperfect is my tenth novel for young adults. The other novels include The Alchemist's PortraitThe Sorcerer's Letterbox, The Clone Conspiracy, The Emerald CurseThe Heretic's Tomb, The Doomsday Mask, The Time Camera, The Sphere of Septimus, and FlashbackI’ve also written more than 80 nonfiction books for children and young adults, but have also written books for adults. These include The Children's Writer's Guide, The Working Writer's Guide, The Social Media Writer's Guide, School and Library Visits for Authors and Illustrators, Exploring the Fantasy Realm, and Where Do Ideas Come From?

SFgirl: What are you working on now?

Simon: My previous novel, Flashback, is a paranormal adventure involving psychic phenomena, ghosts, imaginary friends, mind control experiments, secrets, conspiracies, and time travel with a difference. Flashback has two sequels coming out in 2017, one in the spring and the third installment in the summer. These are already completed but there will be revisions and editing along the way later this year. I’m developing plans for some sequels to The Sphere of Septimus and Future imperfect may generate more adventures too. I’ve also recently completed a parallel universe trilogy, which I’m currently exploring publication options for.

SFgirl: What kind of marketing and promotion do you do?

Simon: I’m in all the usual places online and on social media but I’m also active in the local writing community and conduct book signings at local bookstores on a regular basis. In the spring I was at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo and also connected with readers at schools and libraries in Montreal and Quebec City during Children's Book Week. In August I’ll also be appearing at When Words Collide in Calgary.

SFgirl: I’ll see you then; I’m going too! So, what do you do besides write?

Simon: I work as an instructor for adults at Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary. These classes and courses focus on writing for children and young adults or preparing your work for publication. I also offer coaching and editing services for writers in all genres and conduct online writing courses, such as Writing for Children and Young Adults and Writing Historical Fiction. I write screenplays, articles for magazines, and offer copywriting services for websites, blogs, social media, and businesses.

SFgirl: Simon, do you have any advice for new authors?

Simon Rose
Simon: Writing is in some ways the easy part. It can be a very long process not only to write a book, but also to get it published. Most authors go through many revisions before their work reaches its final format. Remember too that your book will never be to everyone’s taste, so don’t be discouraged. A firm belief in your own success is often what’s necessary. After all, if you don’t believe in your book, how can you expect other people to?

Read as much as you can and write as often as you can. Keep an ideas file, even if it’s only a name, title, sentence or an entire outline for a novel. You never know when you might get another piece of the puzzle, perhaps years later. You also mustn’t forget the marketing. You may produce the greatest book ever written. However, no one else is going to see it if your book doesn’t become known to potential readers. Be visible as an author. Do as many readings, signings and personal appearances as you can. Get your name out there and hopefully the rest will follow. Especially for newly published authors, books don’t sell themselves and need a lot of help.

SFgirl: Excellent advice! Where can people learn more about you and your work?

You can visit my website at www.simon-rose.com or subscribe to my newsletter, which goes out once a month and has details of my current projects and upcoming events.

SFgirl: Thanks so much for joining me on Vinny, Simon.

Simon: My pleasure, Nina.

SFgirl: You didn’t finish your pockta nectar…

Simon: It was … interesting … but I’m on a cleanse right now.

Well done, Simon! You can find Simon on the following Social Media links:




Monday, July 4, 2016

New Moon … and Other Worlds

After learning of my science fiction background, one of my writing coach clients very kindly gave me several 1950s issues of an SF pulp magazine Other Worlds Science Stories. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the last thing I needed was more books—given that I’m more or less an itinerant and still trying to lighten my material possessions.

But I was intrigued.

Tattered and smelling of “attic”, the magazines lured with adventurous covers that summoned memories of why I started reading when I was little: streamlined rocket ships, aliens from exotic planets, explorers on adventures, and technological “utopias”.
1st issue of Astounding Stories 1930

Defined by SF author Robert Silverberg as the epitome of the Science Fiction Golden Age, the 1940s heralded a panoply of short story magazines of the fantastic culminating in a true Golden Age for science fiction in the 1950s. According to Silverberg, the post-WWII 1950s saw “a spectacular outpouring of stories and novels.” Howard Browne started Fantastic in 1952. Horace Gold started Galaxy Science Fiction in 1949. Anthony Boucher founded The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1949. Samuel Mines ran Thrilling Wonder in the 1950s. And John W. Campbell Jr. had started Astounding Science Fiction in 1930, in which A.E. van Vogt and Robert A. Heinlein were first published. Hugo Gernsback had started Amazing Stories in 1926, in which Isaac Asimov was first published in 1939. Amazing Stories still runs today as an online magazine.

Asimov's first story in 1939 issue
The Golden Age saw in some of the most enduring science fiction tropes. Works celebrated scientific achievement and a sense of wonder in our universe. Space opera (space adventure) and exploration of the universe emerged; Isaac Asimov established the Three Laws of Robotics; Heinlein expressed libertarian ideologies and we saw the re-emergence of spiritual themes from the “pulp era”. Books that I read when I was young—Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles; Clarke’s Childhood’s End; Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids; and Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz—came from this era.

Clark Publishing in Evanston, Illinois, started to publish and sell Other Worlds Science Stories for 35 cents in the late 1940s. Raymond A. Palmer and Bea Mahaffey were editors.

I picked up the digest-size April 1953 issue of Other Worlds with its iconic rocket ship in an alien world of lush alien vegetation and exploring astronauts and large “moon” shining in the background; only in this case the lush world was our moon and the “moon” in the sky was Earth. A changed Earth. The cover art by Robert Gibson Jones portrayed a scene from the first story in the magazine called “New Moon” by Raymond A. Palmer (the editor of the magazine) and illustrated by H.W. McCauley. A story I found interesting for several reasons. 

Palmer introduces “New Moon” as a story taking place in 1967—14 years after he wrote it and two years prior to the first moon landing by the Apollo 11 crew. He proposed a two-fold premise: 1) that we can measure and reasonably predict dry and wet periods by using varves (layers in lake sediment); and 2) that rocket scientists will send a rocket to the moon in reasonable time. In fact, his story of a first moon landing was out by only two years.  Palmer also set his story during a major draught in America in the mid-sixties—a time when the Northeastern United States would be hit with devastating drought that would last several years.

The horizon was near, a rolling pail of brownish black, cutting down visibility to a matter of less than a quarter of a mile In the yard a thorny rosebush whipped in the wind, a few dried leaves still clinging to it. Above it the gaunt limbs of the great elm that had shaded the house etched photographically potent arms against the tragic sky. The ditch between the yard and the road was filled with curiously wind-rippled powdery dust…


When the moon suddenly and literally turns green—blossoming into a verdant paradise—scientists get excited. Enter Professor Pickersgill, physicist and astronomer, who explains that this resulted from “a vast cloud of atmospheric and water vapors that had drifted in from outer space, and had now engulfed the moon. Or rather, the moon had gulped most of it in to itself.” Pickersgill then explains to one of the crew who marveled at the speed of vegetative growth, that the spores of life may exist in all space and if so, “they’ve been falling for uncounted ages on the moon, accumulating in soil of incredible fertility. Maybe all that was needed was the water and atmosphere. And among all these strange vegetable forms, there must be hundreds unknown on Earth, and many of them may be much swifter in growth than those adapted to Earth conditions.”  

Scientists now know that water exists everywhere in the universe, from our own sun and planets to comets, dust clouds and even whirlpool-like spinning black holes.

In June 2011, researchers at ESA’s Herschel Space observatory identified a protostar or quasar, 750 light years away. The young star was blasting jets of water into interstellar space from its poles at 124,000 miles per hour. The telescope was able to trace where hydrogen and oxygen, two of the most popular elements in the universe, formed water on and around the star. Close to the star, its heat and pressure vaporize the water into jets of gas. But farther away the water cools into droplets that move like bullets at “80 times faster than the average round fired from a rifle,” writes Clay Dillow in Popular Science Magazine. The speedy spray is “equal to the amount that flows through the Amazon every second,” researchers said. This suggests two things: (1) that young protostars may be distributing vast quantities of water, potentially seeding life elsewhere in the universe; and (2) that water may have played a significant role in the formation of our own sun and solar system. “Stars are the alchemists of the Universe,” Philip Ball writes in H2O: A Biography of Water. Engines of creation, “out of their hearts come the elements needed to make worlds.”—Nina Munteanu, Water Is…The Meaning of Water
Scientists have shown that water plays a key role in the formation of organic molecules and together with the vortex-like radiation of a neutron star may influence the creation of life-forming amino acids. This is not surprising, considering water’s ubiquitous nature and weird properties.
Because water is denser as a liquid than as a solid, ice floats; this permits fish and other aquatic biota to live under partially frozen rivers and lakes. Water—unlike most other liquids—also needs a lot of heat to warm up even a little, which allows mammals to regulate their body temperature. Life’s cellular processes rely on water’s ability to act as a universal solvent. The high diffusion rate of water helps transport critical substances in multicellular organ- isms and allows unicellular life to exist without a circulatory system. one important result is that the viscosity of blood, which behaves in a non-Newtonian way (its viscosity decreases with pressure), will drop when the heart beats faster.—Nina Munteanu, Water Is…The Meaning of Water